New York

Vanessa Beecroft

Deitch Projects

The creepily lifelike sculptures of photorealists like Duane Hanson or John De Andrea permit prurient curiosity: You’re allowed to stare, to note bodily imperfections (and perfections) in a way that would seem impermissible in the presence of live subjects. Vanessa Beecroft’s performances, on the other hand, invite us to gawk at living, breathing men and women, human statues of a sort, who stand still and submit to viewers’ stares without returning them. At the Guggenheim in 1998, Beecroft set up rows of fashion models dad in not much more than impressively high heels, and while such an event may have been calculated to draw the attention of an art community deeply envious of fashion’s aura of glamour and sexiness, the choice of subjects also made the project’s reflexive nature as perspicuous as possible. Modeling is all about representation, particularly self-representation; in that sense models are already almost sculpture, as attested by the word “mannequin” applying to both a human and an artificial figure. Recently, however, Beecroft has been using a different sort of human material: members of the United States Navy. Despite the clear contrasts with her earlier work—female versus male, private versus public, seduction versus force, and so on—an unexpected continuity emerges, for although military personnel are not normally considered in terms of appearance, the disciplined stylization of every detail of their carriage, dress, and demeanor attests to a certain essential representational aspect. To be a sailor, you have to look like one.

This exhibition consisted of photographs from Beecroft’s projects involving the navy at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, last year, and the Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum, New York, in April. These are hardly documentary images. Anyone who attended the event aboard the Intrepid knows it was a fiasco; inclement weather forced the performance to be relocated from the deck to the interior. This move not only earned aesthetic demerits (what’s the point of an aircraft carrier without air?) but also resulted in tremendous logistical problems: The audience was herded so unceremoniously through the claustrophobically tight space around the sailors that one barely had an opportunity to observe the dress-uniformed company before being prodded toward the exit. A shame, because the element of time would have made all the difference here: time to observe one’s own reactions, time to see whether the men’s strict composure would eventually be eroded by the audience’s invasive attention—or vice versa. There could have been a piquant form of social sculpture in the unwonted collage of two mutually unfamiliar cultural milieus, those of the professional military and of the art world; unfortunately, they passed each other like ships in the night. And yet the oddness of the encounter, and the particularity of the faces and bearing of some of the participants (especially the lead officer, whose neck craned unnaturally forward as if bent on overtaking a target), remains vivid in memory.

None of that can be divined from the photographs. That these are performances before an audience is not even a factor. Taken by hired photographers at a “dress rehearsal” before the event, they are constructions, perhaps from the artist’s imagination, of how these men ought to look. The detachment and coldness that in person seemed the raw material to be analyzed and, possibly, dissolved, here appears as immutable substance. While the event was the product (however unsuccessful) of a remarkably extreme formalism, the photographs—inadequate souvenirs—merely betray an excessive formality.

Barry Schwabsky